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Gary Lucas Uses Film Music 'To Shed Light On Obscure Corners Of Culture'

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Gary Lucas Uses Film Music 'To Shed Light On Obscure Corners Of Culture'

Music Interviews

Gary Lucas Uses Film Music 'To Shed Light On Obscure Corners Of Culture'

Gary Lucas Uses Film Music 'To Shed Light On Obscure Corners Of Culture'

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Gary Lucas, known for playing with the late Captain Beefheart and as the late Jeff Buckley's songwriting partner, built reputation with film music. His latest is for an early Orson Welles comedy.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now let's hear about the man The New Yorker magazine calls, quote, "the thinking man's guitar hero," unquote. Gary Lucas has played just about everywhere with just about everyone from Captain Beefheart to DJ Spooky to John Sebastian. But Lucas is also a huge movie fan, and Rick Karr reports that the guitarist's career embraces both passions, music and movies.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Gary Lucas' best-known work may be his collaborations with the lead singer and songwriter Jeff Buckley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRACE")

JEFF BUCKLEY: (Singing) My fading voice sings of love, but she cries to the clicking of time, oh, time.

KARR: Movies were Lucas' first love as a kid growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., monster movies. He screened them for neighbor kids in his parents' basement.

GARY LUCAS: Eight-millimeter versions of classic Universal horror films such as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" and "The Mummy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MUMMY")

BORIS KARLOFF: (As Imhotep) A nameless grave. The slaves were killed so that none should know. The soldiers who killed them were also slain so no friend could creep to the desert with funeral offerings for my condemned spirit.

KARR: Movies had to compete with music after his father gave him a Fender Stratocaster as a bar mitzvah present. Lucas went to Yale and started a horror film series there. Movies took a backseat when he became Captain Beefheart's guitarist and manager. In 1989, the Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Lucas to collaborate on a live score for a silent film. He remembered stills he'd seen in a film magazine as a kid. They came from a German expressionist film based on a Jewish legend called "The Golem."

LUCAS: So I arranged for a private screening. And I came out of that, like, this is the film for me. This should be better known. It's just an incredible film.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY LUCAS' "MUSIC FOR 'THE GOLEM' - MAIN TITLE - RABBI LOEW CONSULTS THE STAR - THE DECREE")

KARR: Lucas performed the scored screenings around the world, and film music became a major focus of his career. He's composed 11 live scores, including one for a Spanish-language version of "Dracula" and another for a silent Chinese melodrama called "The Goddess." Film archivist and curator Andrew Lampert says Lucas' love of cinema comes through in his music.

ANDREW LAMPERT: I think that Gary has a very sort of narrative style in his guitar playing. You know, he doesn't just, like, drop in and do a solo. There's a lot of structure to what he's doing. It is, like, almost visual.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY LUCAS' "TOO MUCH JOHNSON")

KARR: Lucas' most recent live score is for a 1938 silent slapstick comedy directed by Orson Welles. The filmmaker planned for it to be projected between acts of a play he was directing, a revival of an 1890s farce called "Too Much Johnson."

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY LUCAS' "TOO MUCH JOHNSON")

KARR: Welles abandoned the film before he finished editing it and the original footage was presumed lost until a work print was discovered in Italy about a decade ago. Gary Lucas wrote the score the way he's written others, by watching the film again and again.

LUCAS: I look at the film with guitar in hand many, many times. I get to know it intimately. And I try various things and then try and time them to the sequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY LUCAS' "TOO MUCH JOHNSON")

KARR: "Too Much Johnson" differs from the other films Gary Lucas has scored because it's a work print, not a finished film. It's made up of multiple takes of the same scenes shot from different angles.

LUCAS: The multiple takes enhance, if anything, this film. It's just like a further kaleidoscopic funhouse effect. It's like the end of "Lady From Shanghai." It's like seeing Welles through more mirrors.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY LUCAS' "TOO MUCH JOHNSON")

KARR: Lucas sees himself as an evangelist for the films he scores, attracting new audiences with his live accompaniments. He does it for the same reason he continues to play the music of his mentor, Captain Beefheart.

LUCAS: I am trying to shed light on obscure corners of culture that I think more people should know about. I think if you are very excited about something that most people might not have heard about, you would do worse in a karmic sense to try and, like, turn people on to that thing. I feel it's like in a Jewish tradition - it's a mitzvah.

KARR: Gary Lucas' last album was an effort to turn people on to music from cartoons by Fleischer Studios, which created "Popeye" and "Betty Boop." His next album will be all Beefheart material recorded with singer Nona Hendryx. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York.

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